The Case for Nathan Eovaldi

By REED NELSON

New York Yankees starting pitcher Nathan Eovaldi (30) celebrates end of 8th inning, 8th inning, New York Yankees vs. Houston Astros at Yankee Stadium. Bronx, NY. Monday August 24, 2015. (Corey Sipkin/New York Daily News)

New York Yankees starting pitcher Nathan Eovaldi (30) celebrates end of 8th inning, 8th inning, New York Yankees vs. Houston Astros at Yankee Stadium. Bronx, NY. Monday August 24, 2015. (Corey Sipkin/New York Daily News)

Nathan Eovaldi is a professional baseball player. More specifically, he’s a pitcher for the New York Yankees, formerly of the Miami Marlins. As a pitcher, he regularly pumps fastballs in the triple-digits and has all the grace — and most of the size — of an Imperial Walker when moving around the mound.

He’s also 14-2 on a team that is currently deep in the throws of a pennant chase and one that has desperately needed consistent starting pitching. Those things all should, theoretically, make Eovaldi out to be the ace of the 2015 Yankees, but that is decidedly not the consensus1.

Eovaldi’s 2015 campaign, for whatever his W-L record is worth, has been described as something closer to “embattled” or “misleading” or “confusing” or “a precarious mound of snow ready to fucking avalanche” way more often than it has been described as anything resembling good things, which is kind of weird for a dude with a winning percentage of .875 as we move into September.

The critics will, rightly, tout his ugly peripherals, because they’re ugly, and then proceed to wonder how this is possible. They’ll bring up his unholy WHIP (1.443) as evidence of his overwhelming fallibility, they’ll mention his posse-like run support (his friends are providing him just north of six runs per game to work with) as proof of his pedestrianism. They’ll talk about his ugly adjusted ERA+ (93, below league average) and his lack of quality starts and his penchant for walking guys and a lot of other things that make a very strong case against him.

They’ll probably leave out his solid-ish Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) numbers — 3.41, good for 29th in the Majors, right between Scott Kazmir and Cole Hamels and just two slots behind Matt Harvey, Savior of Gotham — because that doesn’t support the Eovaldi Sucks case nearly as well as the other stuff, but that’s OK. Those critics will also conveniently forget to mention that opponents are hitting an absurd .335 on balls in play against Eovaldi this season, a number that, if they did mention, would be coupled with the phrase, “regression to the mean” in some fashion. For those keeping score, a .335 BABIP is good for fifth worst in the league, and by worst, I mean unluckiest; if someone rocking a suspiciously high BABIP at the plate is considered lucky, then a pitcher has to be considered unlucky, at least in some capacity, right? Maybe not. But hey, the dude has recorded wins in 54 percent of the games he’s started, the Yankees have won 69 percent of those games (18-8), and they’ve posted a 9-2 record when he’s on the bump since the beginning of July.

Sure, in that time-frame he’s received seven runs or more five times, but he’s also allowed no more than four runs over the same period. He rarely makes it out of the sixth inning, but he’s also handed his bullpen a lead or a tie game every time he’s left the game during that stretch. That’s kind of crazy.

His left on base percentage (72.9) isn’t great, and that isn’t coming from a small sample size; if you’ve watched a single start of his (save the recent monster outing against Houston) or glanced at his obscene WHIP, you know that he seems to enjoy contra-fitted company behind him when he pitches. But he also doesn’t let those guys come around at an alarming rate. His ERA is dropping, but even when it was north of 4.50, it wasn’t the worst thing.

First, it was buoyed by a few bad outings coupled with short starts in good ones. Second, the Yankees were still winning a lot of those games.

And lately, things have been far better. I mentioned that he’s handed his bullpen a lead or a tie since the beginning of July, but that streak actually extends two starts earlier. In other words, in his last 13 starts, Eovaldi has given the Yankees bullpen a great chance to win. That’s consistency, even if his start-to-start performance hasn’t been the model of it.

Now, I have absolutely no evidence to support this next claim, but bear with me: Nathan Eovaldi might not be a good pitcher, but he understands the concepts of limits much better than most other non-superhuman pitchers. He basically has one pitch, and that pitch is a fastball — not what you traditionally consider a winning trait in the Bigs — but he still owns the league’s 14th best HR/FB rate, and the sixth best in the AL, at 7.9 percent (teammate C.C. Sabbathia, who I still like for no discernible reason besides JORDAN XI CLEATS, BRO, is somehow still working while posting an 18.1 percent HR/FB rate this season, for perspective). It certainly helps that Eovaldi’s fastball routinely tops 100 mph, but it has to say something that he’s Houdini’d for this long. I’m not sure what, but I’m sure it says something.

Back when I used to work in a stadium — as opposed to the living room/bedroom/kitchen combo that I am currently working in — I asked Jack Morris what he thought about the criticism that surrounded him. The concerns over his ERA, the inconsistent strikeout totals, those types of things. He responded with something like, “If I got staked to a lead, I held it. If I didn’t, I did my best to keep us in the game. And my record proves that I did that pretty well.”

I’m not saying that season’s like Felix Hernandez’s 2010 campaign don’t deserve all the credit they receive. Felix pitched like a cyborg programmed with a “Get People Out” algorithm in 2010 and it wasn’t his fault that, simultaneously, the Mariners were baseball’s version of a clogged toilet. But I am saying that a pitcher posting a solid win-loss record without the best peripherals shouldn’t be looked at with skepticism typically reserved for political polling. It’s not like a leper claiming a negative strep test proves their clean bill of health. Baseball still is about winning, regardless of peripheral statistics.

No matter what a Zips projection says about a team, no matter how deviant an expected win-loss record is from the actual one, no matter how unlucky a team has gotten in one-run games, the literal game of baseball still cares deeply about the bottom line. And the bottom line, regardless of our boy Pythagoras, is a results-based tabulation, not a performance-based one. A lot of the skeptical statistics, however, bubble up from the bottom of the performance pool.

Yes, the Orioles shouldn’t have won a million one-run games in 2012, but they did and they rode it to a playoff berth where the playoffs crapshootiness took over and so did Raul Ibanez, but whatever. The Cardinals shouldn’t have hit .484 as a team in 2013 with runners in scoring position (it was actually .330, 447-1,355), but they did and they never hit a wall in the regular season2 either. Sometimes, shit happens in baseball that stats can’t predict. It’s baseball. “Weirder shit has happened,” is a line that can be applied to every weird baseball thing that has ever happened save that one time that Mariano Rivera lost his mind in 2001 and destroyed my vision of what it meant to be Perfect because that was the weirdest thing that has ever happened in baseball.

Sorry. I digressed. Nathan Eovaldi. I probably jinxed him. He could give up eight runs while facing 10 batters in the first inning on Saturday against the Rays and prove the peripherals had a point. But at this point, his win-loss record and his uncanny ability to keep his team in the game is a far more likely scenario and the aforementioned should come as a shock, not as an “I told you so.”

Even if the stats had a point about him all along, the dude has been lounging on a wire for the better part of three months and it’s been a blast to watch him settle in.

Footnotes

  • Prominent publications even suggested moves to the bullpen when he was winning games at an 80 percent clip.Jump.
  • Again, the postseason is a total fucking crapshoot. Jump.


Categories: Baseball

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